Lost In the Meritocracy
‘Lost in the Meritocracy’ by Walter Kirn is an article that demonstrates how beguiled the youth in the United States have become to reach higher social strata through pure pretense. He uses different stories to articulate his major points on how the education system breeds seemingly intellectual and cultured persons but without them actually having any breadth of real knowledge.
The stories focus around his academic years from his last day in high school to when he was finally accepted into Harvard. He talks about how answering a few random multiple questions correctly landed him on a higher trajectory than his friends from high school.
The author focuses a lot on his stay in Princeton where he was a student for four years. In fact, majority of the story is based on his experiences in the educational institution and how they molded him into something he could barely recognize.
The purpose of the article is to demonstrate how the American education system focuses more on breeding aristocrats rather than actual learners and readers who can have a profound impact on the country and the word. He wants the reader to judge whether institutions such as Oxford and Princeton, often prized for their high quality of and all-roundedness education, are merely places for the upper crust members of the society. Kirn wants the readers to analyze, through his life story, whether the elite nature of the schools is a product of true meritocracy or are have they become elitist institutions, fueled by greed, social connections, superficiality, and prestige. After reading the article, the obvious conclusion is that the American education system in general has developed into an elitist rather than an elite system.
Kirn came from a less than well-off family that settled in Minnesota. The family was constantly moving around but during his formative years, he and his family stayed in the rural areas of Minnesota. From a young age, Kirn knew that he had to scale academic and social ladders in order to become part of the elite in the country.
Unlike his friends who were drinking on their way to sit for the SATs and barely had any foresight, he knew that he had to condition himself to game the system if he was to succeed. He writes, “We talk as though we’ll be together forever, but I’ve always known better: Someday we’ll be ranked. We will be screened, scored, and separated. I’ve known this; it seems, since my first few years in grade school” (Kirn 3).
The younger Walter believed that excelling at extra-curricular activities was the surest way of ending up at the top of the curve. He believed that the only way to move was forward and to join a top Ivy League School, he needed to amass as many awards as was possible. He says “ A natural born child of the meritocracy, I’d been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensics models, running my mouth in mock United Nations, and I knew only one direction: forward” (Kirn 14).
Nothing else mattered to the young man except constantly seeking approval from others that he considered superior and more elite. He states that “I lived for prizes; praise, distinctions, and I gave no thought to any goal higher or broader than my next report card” (Kirn 16). His main goal throughout his academic journey up to his breakdown in Princeton was to gain approval from the people in authority.
He managed to find the best way to achieve academic milestones without actually having to read. He realized that a shallow knowledge of some of the normal intellectual conversations starters would propel him to the limelight. Everyone around him was faking intellectualism and somehow they seemed to be moving higher in the social ladder. His ambitions to hob nob with the aristocrats in the society pushed him to fit in even if it meant he had to be shallow himself and to sacrifice his self-fulfillment. Walter writes in his memoir, “Learning was secondary; promotion was primary. No one had ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?” (Kirn 15).
With promotion as his main motivation, he began to pretend to understand things he really had no clue about. For instance, he bitterly mourned the death of John Lennon even though he never even knew the Beatle singer. “One night a report came over the radio that John Lennon, my Quaker friend’s hero, had been assassinated, which plunged the Quaker into fits of violent weeping in which I felt compelled to join. Lennon’s death meant very little to me.”
However, the system no longer seems to work for the young Princeton student. He begins to take drugs as if his inner-self is attempting to tell him that he is losing himself by faking his intellectualism. ‘Tonight, on speed and applying for the Rhodes in a room full of red-eyed former valedictorians, I’m more disoriented than ever” (Kirn 18). The need to constantly try to impress people was slowly eating away at him and his brain structure begins to collapse from within. To extrapolate his deteriorating state, Walter writes, “Only a few months short of graduation, I’ve run out of thoughts, out of the stuff that thoughts are made from. I am mute, aphasic. I can’t write a word” (Kirn 18).
There is also a sense of irony that can be found in the underbelly of the article. The young Walter eventually suffered a breakdown and almost lost his mind at the institution he had gone to find his mind. Princeton was one of the most prestigious institutions in the country and it prided itself in its elite policies and scholarly framework.
However, the class system in the school that was dominated by wealthy children of old guards and the confusion created by new academic fashions such as Theory and Deconstructionism led to his mental breakdown. He quips, “That’s why we’re here: we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That is what they wanted, so that is what we delivered. A talent for nothing, but a knack for everything. Nobody told us it wouldn’t be enough” (Kirn 21).
The classism definitely fueled his drug abuse and eventual mental breakdown. He talks about how his roommates were richer than he was and how they looked down on him. He also observed how Princeton actually works in complete disregard of those who were not as well off as the other children. In his memoir, Kirn writes, “This was my first encounter with a line of reasoning that would echo through my years at Princeton: even unbidden privileges must be paid for. The price of getting in-to the university itself, and to the great world it promised to open up-was an endless dunning for nebulous services that weren’t included in the initial quote” (Kirn 23).
Analyzing the memoir, one can see that it was made on a light note rather than a scathing and in-depth analysis of the American education system. The writer’s style is extremely vicious and overly critical of everyone involved especially of his younger self. Ultimately, the article is basically about self-discovery and the path to self-fulfillment without bowing to pressure to please other people.
Kirn, Walter. Lost in the Meritocracy: the under education of an Overachiever. New York: Doubleday, 2009. Web.